209 unclaimed remains buried in Renton

RENTON — Most were homeless but some lived alone. Some died of violence, others by accident or disease or overdose. Some left family, for others no relatives could be found. A few left strong memories.

What they had in common was that no one claimed their bodies after they died.

On Wednesday, a few dozen people gathered at Mount Olivet Cemetery to pay final respects to the 209 people whose cremated remains were each wrapped in plastic with an identifying tag and placed in a group vault with a headstone reading: “Gone but not forgotten these people of Seattle.”

“(As we see) how many people who are suffering bad breaks beyond their control — losing their homes, losing their jobs, losing their health insurance — the lines of distinction between the people we’ve come to lay to rest today and all the rest of us are getting fuzzier,” said Gary Johnson, representing the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, which arranges the burials of unclaimed remains.

“These members of our community were more like us than not,” Johnson said. “They deserve to be remembered.”

Similar group burial ceremonies were held nearby in 2005 and 2007.

Of the dead, 155 were men, 55 were women and two were baby boys. Two sets of remains were unidentified, one found by construction workers in the Rainier Valley of Seattle and the other marked only “St. Vincent de Paul.”

Jack Atwood, a former Oregon logger who died on May 11, 2006, was remembered well by Mary Larson, a nurse at the Pioneer Square Clinic, although she hadn’t seen him in years.

Larson said Atwood, wearing bright red suspenders, occasionally would stop at the clinic to say hello. On one visit he brought a chain saw, which he said was part of a collection he had assembled despite being homeless for a time.

“He was so proud,” she said. “There he was with the biggest chain saw I’ve ever seen, just grinning.”

Anitra Freeman, a formerly homeless poet, said she was friends with some of the deceased. She said Paula Anne Gunn, who found housing just before dying in July 2006, shared a street corner with Julio Delgado, who died in November 2006.

“Every human being is important and we need to remember that to solve homelessness,” said Freeman, a member of Women in Black, which conducts vigils for women who die on the street or from violence.

She now has Gunn’s unfinished crocheting and photographs, one showing her being hugged by a young woman with dark hair — her daughter, perhaps.

“Paula was a very strong woman,” Freeman said. “She could be a stubborn woman. She didn’t give to just anybody, but to most people she was very generous.”

Laura Schoenfeld was a quiet, gray-haired woman, who lived on the streets and died on May 16, 2007, said Brigid Hagan, who also attended the burial.

“She was sweet and gentle and kind, even when things were chaotic,” Hagan said.

The county’s Indigent Remains Program, operating on a $150,000 budget, kicks in after the medical examiner’s staff cannot find anyone to claim a body after checks with hospitals, emergency shelters, landlords, social service providers, even return addresses on mail delivered after a person dies.

Some whose remains go unclaimed indicated on forms or applications that they had no relatives, and others “lived alone and pretty much did everything alone and kept to themselves,” said Joe Frisino, a death investigator.

The remains of each are kept separate in case a relative comes forward to claim the ashes after they have been buried. Frisino recalled helping a woman get the ashes of her brother years after he died.

“I think it’s something that is appreciated,” Frisino said.

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